New, and a bit alarming
Even if Beastly were a bad movie - which, in fact, it is; a very bad movie indeed - it would still be worth getting excited for the fact that it rings in a brand new subgenre: the Post-Twilight Emo Fairy Tale. Excited? "Terrified", I meant to say.
In this case, we have Beauty and the Beast set in New York City, amongst 17-year-olds. Based on a novel by Alex Finn, it actually does a fair job of referencing almost all of the detail from Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's primary version of the tale, with several lifts from Disney; at the same time it's not a beat-for-beat version of the story in contemporary drag, but an honest attempt to do something modern in the spirit of the original. That is the only positive thing I have to say about Beastly, which is otherwise pap of the highest order: a stiff morality play that never really believes its own theme, burdened by unconvincing writing, dreary performances of massively unsuccessful characters, and slack direction by Daniel Barnz - whose last name makes me think of X-Treme Farming, or something, but it's not his fault and I shouldn't poke fun - hee, "barnz" - SLACK DIRECTION BY DANIEL BARNZ whose dislike of the material, somehow even sadder and more shapeless than outright contempt would have been, oozes out through every single flat composition of the aimless characters mouthing rough sketches of what amounts to dialogue (also provided by Barnz, conveniently enough).
The film opens with Kyle Kingson (Alex Pettyfer), a gorgeous, rich, and evil young man running for president of the Green Committee* at his unfathomably palatial high school, with a massive atrium that looks more like the lobby of a corporate headquarters. Here, Kyle gives a speech that essentially says, "I am pretty and wealthy and fuck you", which somehow results in the assembled student body cheering like he was a Beatle, or God - except for one person. That would be Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen), who, we are assured, is "ugly", though besides some sparkly silver makeup and a tiny piercing near her right eye, it's not very clear why anybody would say that. Kendra is, in addition to being marginally divergent from a relentlessly strict concept of physical beauty, is also a witch, and though she gives Kyle a chance to apologise for humiliating her in front of everybody, he just digs in even worse, and she curses him to one year of looking like a monster: tribal tattoos and a shiny silver thing on his forehead that don't really make him look beastly at all, but let's concede the movie its basic concept. Anyway, if nobody tells him within one year, "I love you", the uglifying sticks.
I started to write out a quick synopsis for the rest, and that's when I found out that I really didn't want to. Just the basic facts: Beauty in this case is Lindy Taylor (Vanessa Hudgens), who ends up hiding out from an enraged drug dealer in the gorgeous apartment where Kyle's shallow newsman father (Peter Krause) is forcing him to hide, alongside a blind tutorer named Will (Neil Patrick Harris), who'd rather hang out and be sassy, and Jamaican housemaid Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton). Over the course of a year, Kyle learns how not to be so concerned with looks, which is probably easier to do when your idea of "plain" is Vanessa Hudgens.
There's nothing pervasively wrong with the narrative of Beastly, besides a loathsome sense of fatigue that makes its scant 86 minutes stretch out like the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, and the colossal thematic incoherence of a film that ladles on heavy-handed indications of Message like Kyle's campaign speech, or the film-opening use of Lady Gaga's "Vanity" against images of virtually-naked billboard photos, a stunt that could double as Chapter 1 of Irony for Dummies, and on the other hand seems far more concerned with its hero's looks than with his internal happiness, though this might be a side-effect of casting Pettyfer, an actor who was forced into the world in the first couple of months of 2011 for absolutely no goddamn reason other than the fact that unlike many performers, he continues to look airbrushed even in motion picture footage, who neither indicates anything resembling an inner life for Kyle, nor has any hint of chemistry with Hudgens, who fills the Bella Swan/Kristen Stewart role with aplomb; like Stewart, she appears to have spent the entire shoot baked out of her skull, though more in the giggly pothead way than the morose stoner way.
But still, nothing about Beastly is expressly broken, so that's nice, anyway. Its problems run in other directions: a protagonist whose transformation from asshole to puppy dog isn't remotely credible, both because of the selfsame Pettyfer, and because Barnz can't write him credibly, and we never see that shift from the guy who gives a douchebag speech about it being great that he's attractive to a guy who believes anything else; we know it must be so since the movie tells us, but it's not a process, just a shift that happens when the screenplay won't work with a dick hero anymore. He's just a dick whose learned to love a different girl, who for her own part gets a big maudlin speech at the end that boils down to, "I'd totally have been a doormat for Kyle kid who used to be so pretty, if only he'd paid attention to me".
Barnz's direction is mostly just a sad attempt to get through things with as little effort as possible: he plugs a few scattered ideas of style into a few scenes (of which the most interesting is a time lapse of fall becoming winter becoming spring on a green screen behind the actors), but nothing that expresses a level of creativity that would have seemed innovative ten years ago. And his handling of most of the locations suggest that he doesn't have a better sense of what the hell kind of high school has Bauhaus architecture any more than I do, nor what exact kind of structure Kyle-the-Beast and his makeshift family live in. More to the point, it never seems, even for a single shot, like he cares. Not when he can rely on a remarkably ill-chosen soundtrack (I believe for exactly no seconds that these characters listen to Death Cab for Cutie) to do the emotional work for him and his leads' physical looks to draw in a crowd - how's that for your "it's on the inside" moral?
The only times the film lifts at all, it does so because of two actors: Olsen, in a teeny role, manages to knock all sorts of life into the proceedings, and Harris manages to glide through untouched largely by choosing to pretend that he's in a completely different project. Krause, meanwhile, recites his lines with dull efficiency and gets out as fast as he can, while Hamilton's completely unplayable character, dropped in from a social realist drama, leaves the actress stranded with a ridiculous accent and banal homilies in place of characterisation. Visually, it's indifferently lit and staged with absolutely no eye towards giving the action any room to breath: just plop characters right next to each other, have them talk, next set-up. It's a tired movie; a movie that exists solely to be product and has the profound misfortune to know it.
Also, one of the posters boasts the tagline, "Love is never ugly", which I consistently misread as "Love means never having to say you're ugly", which I mention only because I think the movie advertised by that slogan would be an awful lot funnier than Beastly. But then again, just about anything would be.